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What Price Star Wars?

Blundering Into Disaster: Surviving the First Century of the Nuclear Age

by Robert McNamara
Pantheon, 212 pp., $14.95

The technical ideas which underlie the SDI concept of a defensive screen over the US were generated not by the President or his chiefs of staff, but by scientists and engineers driven along by the vested interests of the weapons laboratories in which they work. Some of them must have provided the information that encouraged Caspar Weinberger to call last December for immediate preparations to deploy and SDI system. Since it was only in October that Lowell Wood, one of the leading figures in the Livermore SDI program, declared publicly that it would be years before anyone could judge whether such a system was feasible, those concerned must have made remarkable progress in the intervening two months. If the call for early deployment turns out not to have been a political gimmick, Mr. Weinberger will have dealt American and Western defense a blow from which it may take long to recover.

Reputable science and bluff do not go together either in the civil or in the defense field. The more prominent scientists and engineers who are working on SDI do not appear to be impressed by what The New York Times called “the incredible pace at which breakthroughs are being made”—as reported to Congress by General James Abrahamson, director of the SDI program.1 Many have expressed considerable disquiet about the sudden shifts in the priorities of the SDI program, and about the campaign for early deployment. Dr. Gerold Yonas, until recently the research director of the SDI organization, is reported as having said that he wonders whether the US is in fact “capable of running a big long-term program.”2

What is clear is that as belief in a perfect space shield has faded, all manner of justifications have been advanced for carrying on with the SDI program.3 Even a leaky defense, it is argued, might reduce the level of destruction the Russians could inflict on the US. An imperfect defense could even enhance deterrence, since the USSR would hesitate before striking at America for fear that a proportion of its warheads might not get through. Another argument is that if the US SDI program continues, the Russians, already in economic difficulties, would feel constrained to follow suit, so adding to their burden, whereas the US, despite the fact that it is now the greatest debtor nation in the world, could afford to carry on regardless. Others assert that the Russians are already spending more than the United States on strategic defense—even, some say, on their own SDI. The US cannot, therefore, slacken its defense effort. The most usual charge is that the USSR has been violating the 1972 ABM Treaty, so that the US would be justified were it to follow suit.

While argument revolves around all these propositions, we seem to have become bewitched by the SDI criterion of “cost-effective at the margin,” as spelled out in 1985 by Paul Nitze at the Philadelphia World Affairs Council. As he put it when explaining the SDI concept:

The technologies must produce defense systems that are survivable…. New defensive systems must also be cost-effective at the margin, that is, it [sic] must be cheap enough to add additional defensive capability so that the other side has no incentive to add additional offensive capability to overcome the defense. If this criterion is not met, the defensive systems could encourage a proliferation of countermeasures and additional offensive weapons to overcome deployed defenses, instead of a redirection of effort from offense to defense. As I said, these criteria are demanding. If the new technologies cannot meet these standards, we are not about to deploy them.4

In the official statement about the goal of SDI that Secretary of State Shultz made last November, the reference to cost-effectiveness was repeated somewhat ambiguously so that, on a broad interpretation, it could also be taken to imply that the advantages that might be derived from an SDI-defensive system would outweigh its political and strategic disadvantages, not just that it would cost the Russians more, in rubles, to destroy or evade the system than it would cost the US, in dollars, to deploy one. Cost-effectiveness would also need to be measured in relation to the consequences of treaties being violated in the process of pursuing a dream. Anyhow, teams of auditors are not going to be running around examining the books of the two sides in order to signal the point at which they judge the criterion to have been violated.

In Blundering Into Disaster, Mr. McNamara guides us back to a real world from the unreal one of the visionaries of SDI. He certainly has the credentials to do so. He was defense secretary during the period of the first major buildup of the nuclear arsenal of the US. He succeeded in checking the three armed services in some of their wilder demands for ever more exotic nuclear weapons. He was one of the first major political figures to realize that the ABM systems that were being developed in the late Sixties and early Seventies were not only technically useless but strategically destabilizing.5 It was he and President Johnson who persuaded Premier Kosygin to take the same view, and so opened the way for the 1972 ABM Treaty.

Mr. McNamara’s short and powerful book begins with a factual account of the growth of the nuclear forces of the two sides. He reminds us that the United States had no intention of using its superior nuclear firepower when it confronted the USSR in 1961 over Berlin or in 1962 over Cuba. Nor was there any fear of its doing so when the two sides came face to face toward the end of the 1967 Arab–Israeli war. On the other hand, writes Mr. McNamara,

on each of the occasions lack of information, misinformation, and misjudgments led to confrontation. And in each of them, as the crisis evolved, tensions heightened, emotions rose, and the danger of irrational decisions increased…. Today we face a future in which for decades we must contemplate continuing confrontation between East and West. Any one of these confrontations can escalate, through miscalculation, into military conflict. And that conflict will be between blocs that possess fifty thousand nuclear warheads—warheads that are deployed on the battlefields and integrated into the war plans…. In the tense atmosphere of a crisis, each side will feel pressure to delegate authority to fire nuclear weapons to battlefield commanders. As the likelihood of attack increases, these commanders will face a desperate dilemma: use them or lose them.

One should note that despite the enormous growth that has taken place in the nuclear forces of the two sides, the situation was in fact potentially more dangerous in the Fifties than it was after Mr. McNamara became defense secretary. In those early days Europe was seemingly the only battleground where nuclear weapons might be used, on the assumption that greater firepower could compensate for weakness in conventional forces. NATO doctrine then had it that nuclear weapons would be used to stem any assault by Warsaw Pact troops that could not be contained immediately.

There was no novel military thinking behind this so-called strategy. Military doctrine has always had it that when your enemy is not deterred by your own array of force, you have to repel him by using whatever tactics and firepower will, it is hoped, help avert defeat. In the early days of the nuclear era this was the basis of the Dulles doctrine of massive nuclear retaliation, a fiction that survived even after the Russians deployed enough nuclear ballistic missiles to reply in kind, and even against American cities. Faced by what they regarded as a continuing Russian menace, Europeans learned to take comfort in the thought that the United States, the major partner in the Western alliance, would be ready to sacrifice Cincinnati, New York, Chicago, and Washington in defense of London, Paris, and Rome.

By the start of the 1960s, however, serious doubts about NATO strategy and tactics had already started to be voiced. It was becoming clear that were nuclear weapons ever used in Europe as battlefield weapons, not only would there be hundreds of thousands, even millions of civilian as well as military casualties in the zone of conflict, but military operations would grind to a halt because they could not be controlled in an environment of radioactive devastation. There was also the strong likelihood that the conflagration would then develop into an exchange of intercontinental missiles. Obviously nuclear weapons deterred, but, equally obviously, they could not “defend.” Their actual use as battlefield weapons could lead to disaster for both sides.

Mr. McNamara tells us that in 1962 he set out to persuade the NATO Council “to substitute a strategy of ‘flexible response’ for the existing doctrine of ‘massive retaliation.’ ” Nuclear weapons had only “two roles in the NATO context: deterring the Soviet initiation of nuclear war; and as a weapon of last resort, if conventional defense failed, to persuade the aggressor to terminate the conflict on acceptable terms.”

It was five years before this policy was accepted by the European members of NATO, and on paper “flexible response” remains NATO’s policy to this day. But, as Mr. McNamara also points out, a condition of the new policy was that NATO’s nonnuclear forces would be strengthened so that nuclear weapons would be used only in “last resort.” The “nuclear threshold,” as it is styled, would thus be raised. By all accounts this condition has not been met. Given a European war, it is widely held that NATO would be defeated if it did not turn within a matter of days, if not hours, to the use of battlefield nuclear weapons and of so-called tactical or intermediate-range weapons. Were this ever to happen, the chances are that events would swiftly escalate to an all-out nuclear exchange. In such circumstances, flexible response and massive retaliation would in effect become one and the same thing—except that today there are many more nuclear warheads available with which to destroy the world.

Mr. McNamara also points out that Russian views about the military relevance of nuclear weapons evolved in much the same way as did our own. First was the notion that the weapons not only had a “military utility,” but that nuclear battles could be fought and won. Hence the Russian buildup, not only of shorter-range and battlefield nuclear weapons, but also of intermediate-range ballistic missiles such as the SS-20. Gradually, however, more cautious voices started to be heard. Even at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, Khrushchev understood that a war in which nuclear weapons were used could mean total disaster for the USSR. More recently the Russians have formally stated that they will never be the first to use nuclear weapons.

Mr. McNamara is in no doubt that a state of mutual nuclear deterrence was in existence from at least the beginning of the Sixties, and that the political leaders of the two sides were no less deterred then than they are today. “Given the tremendous devastation which those Soviet strategic forces that survived a US first strike would now be able to inflict on this country [the US],” he writes, “it is difficult to imagine any US President, under any circumstances, initiating a strategic strike except in retaliation against a Soviet nuclear strike.” And he goes on to say that “strategic nuclear weapons have lost whatever military utility may once have been attributed to them. Their sole purpose, at present, is to deter the other side’s first use of its strategic forces.”

  1. 1

    Editorial in The New York Times (March 11, 1987), reproduced in the International Herald Tribune (March 12, 1987).

  2. 2

    Reported by William Broad, The New York Times (March 9, 1987).

  3. 3

    Zbigniew Brzezinski provides an excellent anthology of views for and against SDI in Promise or Peril, published in 1986 by the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Star War Quotes, compiled by the Arms Control Association in July 1986, is also a rich mine of opposing views.

  4. 4

    Address to the Philadelphia World Affairs Council, February 20, 1985. (Emphasis added.)

  5. 5

    There is only one aspect of the President’s SDI that was not implicit in the ABM concepts of which Mr. McNamara had direct experience—the belief that it should be possible to destroy Russian missiles as they rise from their silos, and before their multiple independently maneuverable—MIRVed—warheads have been released. This, together with the design of the computer network that a space-based ABM system would require, are from the technical point of view also the most fanciful parts of the President’s dream.

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